The U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has picked the aerospace company Lockheed Martin to build the next generation spacecraft that will return man to the moon for the first time in more than three decades.
NASA administrator Doug Cooke said competition for the multibillion-dollar contract to build the next manned lunar spaceship was fierce.
"I do want to announce who we have awarded the contract to -- and it is Lockheed Martin,” he said before the cheering began.
The announcement was greeted with wild applause by Lockheed Martin employees, who faced tough competition from aerospace giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
The task -- to build a spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to the moon and beyond.
The Orion, billed as the next generation of manned spacecraft, has been described by some NASA engineers as "Apollo on steroids".
Launched by a multi-stage Ares 5 rocket, the spacecraft will go into orbit around the Earth before docking with the International Space Station. From there, NASA official Scott Horowitz says, Orion will take astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars.
"After arriving in orbit, and we can go into orbits now that can go to the poles of the moon, the lander will land at the base and be able to do sortie missions for up to a week in duration. Eventually we will work up to having an outpost on the Moon and be able to stay for up to six months," he said.
"Space is no longer going to be a destination that we visit briefly. We are going to learn to live off the land, like the pioneers did,” continued Mr. Horowitz. “In order to be able to go to Mars we have to learn a lot of lessons on the Moon because while you can get to the Moon and back in a few days, Mars would be several years."
The announcement will mean 600 new jobs for the Maryland-based firm.
John Stevens, Lockheed Martin's director of space exploration, says the company's proposal gives NASA engineers final say on major design elements of the new spacecraft. "They will be designing key components for the Orion spacecraft, and we're going to be designing the electrical system, designing the propulsion system, and the structure."
The first phase of the project is budgeted at $3.9 billion. If all goes well, Orion's first test flight is scheduled for September, 2014.
Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin